STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Today, NASA launched Discovery, on what will be one of the last space shuttle missions. The seven-member crew is headed for the International Space Station. In the future, the space agency will be spending a lot more time studying earth. The Obama administration has proposed a budget for NASA that includes billions of dollars for satellites and other tools to investigate earthbound problems like climate change.
NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.
JON HAMILTON: For much of the past decade, NASA's Earth Science Division has been allowed to languish. As a result, the agency wasn't able to replace aging satellites that monitor things polar ice, coastal wetlands, ocean temperatures and chemicals in the atmosphere.
Edward Weiler, of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, says things have changed dramatically since the arrival of the Obama administration.
Mr. EDWARD WEILER (NASA Science Mission Directorate): This administration has a clear priority for science in general, and Earth science in specific.
HAMILTON: And now it plans to give NASA's Earth science programs $2.4 billion in new money over the next five years. That's an increase of more than 60 percent.
Weiler says much of the new money will be spent trying to reinvigorate efforts to determine how fast the Earth's climate is changing.
Mr. WEILER: We know there's a threat. We know there's climate change going on. What we got to do now is monitor the rate. We've got to measure how fast the ice is being depleted, how fast carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere versus being taken out of it.
HAMILTON: Scientists think carbon dioxide from sources like cars and power plants is the most important contributor to global warming. But Michael Freilich, of NASA's Earth Science Division, says they still don't know much about what happens to carbon dioxide once it gets into the atmosphere.
Mr. MICHAEL FREILICH (NASA Earth Science Division): In order to figure out where it's going, how it's being exchanged between the atmosphere and the ocean, and the atmosphere and the land, you have to make a whole variety of measurements.
HAMILTON: The extra funding will help scientists get those measurements. One chunk is paying for a new Orbiting Carbon Observatory to replace the original, which crashed into the ocean last year just after it was launched.
The new funding will also allow NASA to replace twin satellites called GRACE that have been making detailed measurements of the Earth's gravity field since 2002. That may sound like something only science wonks would care about, but Weiler says GRACE has proved to have many more practical applications than anyone expected.
Mr. WEILER: As if flies over something like the San Joaquin Valley, it could measure the amount of water underground. And since it's been flying for a long time, it's been able to trace how much groundwater is there. And what it's showing is that the groundwater is disappearing more quickly than it's been replenished.
HAMILTON: Perhaps in part because of changes related to global warming.
The NASA funding still needs approval from Congress, but NASA officials say lawmakers seem to like the space agency's new focus on the Earth.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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